It looks like the Pitt Panthers might have slept in a little late post-Thanksgiving for their noon kickoff today against the visiting Miami Hurricanes.
In spite of having the opportunity to earn their ninth regular season win for only the third time in 32 years and send their seniors out victorious in their final game at Heinz Field, the Panthers (8-4, 6-2 ACC) were unable to overcome a lethargic start that led to a 23-3 halftime deficit, ultimately suffering a disappointing 29-24 loss to the visiting Hurricanes (8-4, 5-3 ACC).
A theme much of the season, the Panthers once again struggled early in the contest, something that had Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi looking for answers after the game.
“We have to find a way to get a jump start,” Narduzzi said. “I might have to bring my jumper cables out or something. We need to jump start the offense and the defense.”
The Panthers would outscore the Hurricanes 21-6 in the second half, but it proved to be too little too late despite of a spirited effort to make the comeback.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya led the charge with 261 yards passing, while running back Joe Yearby added 99 yards on the ground, 66 in the first half to help pace the Hurricanes offensive attack. Winners of four of five since the firing of Al Golden, Kaaya made it clear he and his teammates were ready to play in the last game of the season.
“We wanted to go all out,” Kaaya said. “This was our last game of the season; we wanted to start early and start fast.”
Miami wasted little time taking control early, scoring on their first three possessions to rush out to a 17-0 first quarter lead thanks to a combination of explosive plays by the Hurricanes offense and capitalizing on a rare mistake by Panthers quarterback Nate Peterman.
The Hurricanes dashed out to a 7-0 lead on the first possession of the game thanks to a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ate over six minutes off the clock. The drive was keyed by a 35-yard run by Yearby where Pitt misssed multiple tackles on the play. After being stopped on third-and-goal from the one, Kaaya snuck in on fourth down to give the Hurricanes an early advantage.
On the Panthers first possession, Peterman was intercepted for only the fifth time all season by the Hurricanes Artie Burns, who returned it 19 yards to the Pitt 23. This led to the first of five field goals by Hurricanes kicker Michael Badgeley to put Miami up 10-0 just 6:57 into the first quarter.
The Panthers second possession showed signs of life after completions to Zach Challingsworth and Tyler Boyd and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty would lead to a 48-yard field goal attempt by Chris Blewitt. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Blewitt’s kick hit the upright and the Hurricanes once again wasted little time stretching their advantage on a two-play drive where Kaaya first hit Stacy Coley for 48 yards and then Rashawn Scott for a 22-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead with 2:34 remaining in the first quarter.
Freshman running back Darrin Hall and Boyd would help get points on the board for the Panthers combining for 56 yards on the ground on a 10-play, 68-yard drive that would cut the Hurricanes lead to 20-3 thanks to a Blewitt 25-yard field goal.
Kaaya and the Hurricanes offense would respond with a 17 play drive that would take the final 5:02 off the clock and ended with Badgeley’s third field goal of the half to give the Hurricanes a 23-3 halftime lead.
The Panthers worked desperately to get back into the game in the second half, and were able to cut the lead to 23-10 in the third quarter after Hall carried the ball on all five plays of the possession to march 61 yards for the touchdown. Hall’s breakout performance gave the Panthers life as the fourth quarter began with the Panthers still down 13.
Hall noted the effort in the fourth was all about sending the Panthers 12 seniors out with a win.
“I was just trying to get a win,” Hall said. “It was Senior Night, and I was just trying to do whatever I can. My number was called, and I was just trying to get a win.”
After Badgeley nailed his fourth and fifth kicks of the game to stretch the Hurricanes lead to 29-10, the Panthers would make a late charge started by a 89-yard kickoff return by Quadree Henderson that would set up a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Scott Orndoff followed by a Peterman rush for a successful two-point conversion to get the deficit down to 29-18.
The Panthers defense then was able to force a Hurricanes three-and-out, and after a 31-yard punt set up the offense at their own 39, Pitt was in position to creep closer with just over six minutes left to play. After driving to the Miami 29 in seven plays, Blewitt’s second miss of the day was critical, as the Panthers needed 11 points in final 4:22.
Just over a minute later, the Panthers would get the ball back after another defensive stand and took just 39 seconds to cut the lead to 29-24 with 2:34 remaining thanks to a 36-yard completion to Boyd followed by a 5-yard Peterman touchdown run.
With no timeouts, the Panthers unsuccessfully attempted an onside kick allowing Miami to run out the clock and ending the hopes of Pitt sending their seniors out winners in their final game at Heinz Field.
Clearly disappointed, Narduzzi made it clear he’s not fully satisfied with the upward trajectory of his program in year one.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Narduzzi noted. “We want to win some of those big games. There are 12 games, and you’d like to win 12. You’re never going to be happy until you get every one of those. It’s our kids mindsets, and that’s why I love this team so much. They’re going to fight and give you everything they got … That’s all you can ask as a coach.”
The Panthers will now wait to find out their Bowl destination with the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City one of a few potential landing spots.